Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

I’m running way behind on Garden Tribe’s 21-Day Veggie Garden Boot Camp, so I’ll try to catch up the next few days.

Day 8 topic is Raised Beds–a subject dear to my heart, because I think you can make a garden look really stunning by adding different levels.

Of course, beauty is not necessarily the point for Garden Tribe. Let’s just stick to the basics, “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts”.

The GT lesson has an excellent summary, so I’ll let them tell it, and I’ll just add my two-bits: and here’s a great little site for raised beds:

  1. Why do you want a raised bed?
    1. You have no ground space or your only available ground space is inappropriate for vegetables.
    2. Your need the physical convenience of raised bed.
    3. You want to control the soil better
    4. You like the look.
  2. What is underneath?
    1. Impervious concrete/asphalt/other. Walls of raised bed need to be taller than if located over soil; needs to have a bottom with landscape cloth and good drainage.
    2. Grass/turf/weeds that you’re going to cover and smother. In my experience it took at least a year for the plant material to decompose, and in the meantime was full of wireworm that got into the potatoes. 
    3. Soil that’s difficult to till/grow in/doesn’t drain well. Covering that over with lots of inches of largely organic mixture will begin the process of amending that soil, so it’s a very good thing.
    4. Reasonably good growing soil, just not high enough. So you’re going to make it higher.
  3. How high to the raised beds need to be? If you look at the link above to Easrtheasy.com you’ll see how deep the roots grow for various vegetables.
    1. You’re growing plants with shallow roots, (most greens and cabbage/broccoli veg)
    2. You’re growing plants with deep roots (everything else)
    3. Even tho’ the roots prefer to grow that deep, doesn’t mean the have to grow that deep. Just remember that, depending on what’s underneath the raised bed, you may be responsible for the entire reservoir of nutrients, water and growing medium (see container growing Day 7).
      5 Gallon cloth containers. these dry out FAST.

      5 Gallon cloth containers. These dry out FAST.

      These 5 gallon containers (allegedly a tomato plant needs to be in at least 5 gal pot) are only about 12″ tall. I did get tomatoes last year, but not as many as I should have.

    4. So taller is better. Besides that, you’re going to be growing different things in different place in years to come (I’m sure more of that to come in future GT days), so you may not need too much depth this year for lettuce, but next year you may be growing squash or parsnips or carrots in that spot.

      I have only shallow growers in these 8" high beds, located over

      I have only shallow growers in these 8″ high beds, located over grass. The potatoes can be mounded up, hence not needing too much height, but this was the year I got wireworms in the potatoes. I’ve been meaning to add another 8″ section on top…

Stay tuned for next lesson–SOIL. (Don’t call it “dirt” in the presence of garden lovers!)

Your Successful Vegetable Garden Day 6

This is the Garden Journal my friend Candace gave me several years ago. You can see the cover is faded, and decorated with coffee stains.

This is the Garden Journal my friend Candace gave me several years ago. You can see the cover is faded, and decorated with coffee stains.

Its’ Garden Tribe’s Day 6 of 21 Day Boot Camp, and today we’re going to draw out the “what” and “where” of your 2015 successful vegetable garden.

Have a good look at this --click on the image to enlarge it-- you'll see I have had some impressive failures. But I'm getting better, slowly but surely!

Have a good look at the pencil sentence in the middle –click on the image to enlarge it– you’ll see I have had some impressive failures. But I’m getting better, slowly but surely!

This was a “square foot” garden, raised beds 4′ square, so it was easy to draw.

There’s no trick to this, all you have to do is

1. Measure;

2. Identify the shade/sun orientation of your space;

3. Decide how much of each crop you want;

4. Start drawing in pencil so you can change your mind and move things around.

So, taking my 2011 garden above as an example: I wanted 8 tomatoes, and they had to be in full sun. But they cast a lot of shade by mid-summer, so they had to be at the back of the garden. But they also take up more than 1 square foot, so I staggered them. Peas are planted behind toms at the corners, which won’t shade them because the peas will be finished by the time the tomatoes are getting big.

So just get stuck in there–this is where it begins to get fun, actually putting your project into action.

Veggie Garden – Day 5

Potato harvest. One of my favourite things to grow, even tho' they're cheap to buy.

Potato harvest. One of my favourite things to grow, even tho’ they’re cheap to buy.

Day 5 of Garden Tribe’s 21-day Boot Camp is sub-titled “Right Sizing for Success”. Which incidentally I’ve already addressed in Veggie Garden Day 3.

But since if you’re anything like me you haven’t actually started yet, let’s just do a quick 3-point lesson:

1. No garden is “no-maintenance”, so be realistic about how much time you can spend working in the garden. I’m usually reluctant to use the word “working”, because I always want people to feel like this is an enjoyable activity, not a chore. But in this case, since success is what we’re after here, I have to admit there are a few garden-related tasks that are less fun, more duty. Like weeding. It’s pretty hard to grow vegetables without incurring weeds. So what do you think? One hour per day? Two hours per week? Can you get into the garden for 15 minutes before or after an 8-hour work day?

2. We’ve already established that as a novice vegetable-gardener, you’re going to start with just 5 crops. But if some of those 5 are cool season crops, they’ll stop growing early to mid summer, so in the same location, and for no extra work, you can substitute a 6th crop. Say you started with radishes in one 3’x3′ space. By mid June they will pretty much give up trying, so why not sow beans now in that space? Better yet, if you knew beforehand that by mid-June your radishes would be exhausted, at the end of May you could have started beans indoors and have transplants ready to go into that spot. (That’s what calendars are for!)

This is a terrible photo of radishes and peas. They'll both be done by mid-summer, so I'll transplant some beans babies into the same spot. Maybe...

This is a terrible photo of radishes and peas. They’ll both be done by mid-summer, so I’ll transplant some bean-babies into the same spot. Maybe…

3. Another thing–mentioned yesterday–is to only sow a portion of your patch at a time, then sow a few more next week and a few more the following week. That way the crop will mature over an extended time instead of all at once. Now having said that, some crops that are slow to put on growth in the cooler weather will be faster when it warms up a bit, so the later-sown ones may actually catch up the the earlier-sown ones. No problem, you’re still getting vegetables on your plate.

Tomorrow’s subject: draw it all out.


Veggie Garden Day 3

Garden Tribe’s “Boot Camp”–mini course on veggie gardening  continues. So I’m continuing with my annotations. You can benefit from my signally pitiful failures. They say the key to success is learning from our failures, so I should be really successful. Oh, unless of course I didn’t actually learn…

Never mind, on with Day 3–Where to Plant.

My motivation as a designer is always to give people the tools to be proud of their labours. That inspires us to do more of the same. So what will it take to be proud of our vegetable garden? Making it as easy as possible, so you’re keen to get started, keep at it, see progress, get quick results, and finally, succeed!

This is not an example of quick results (nor "success" as one would usually define it). I sowed asparagus seeds indoors spring 213; few of them survived the transplant, so I direct sowed some more. Two years later this is my asparagus bed.

This is not an example of quick results (nor “success” as one would usually define it). I sowed asparagus seeds indoors spring 2013; few of them survived the transplant, so I direct sowed some more. Two years later this is my asparagus bed.

1. How much space do you think you’ll need? If you haven’t done a lot of gardening before, don’t bite off more than you can chew (someone please give me a non-food metaphor!). Did you identify 25 vegetables you know you’ll eat? Short list 5 of them. The you can devote yourself to those five and really give them the best of your energies.

2. Now, what will the actual garden beds look like? If you want to plant up a bed that’s 10′ x 10′, you’ll have to build paths through it, thus losing planting space anyway. Better for the home garden to have beds that are no wider than you can reach. For me that’s 3′. I can reach 18″, and I have access on two sides, therefore a 3′ wide bed. If I plant veggies along the edge of a perennial or shrub border (I’m sure Garden Tribe will address that in future days), then I won’t go deeper into the bed than 18″–as far as I can comfortably reach.DSCN1193

3. Light. Usually you can expect to find vegetable gardens located in full sun. Here in coastal BC, even full sun isn’t strong sun, so you seldom have to worry about leaves burning by scorching rays. But the “at least 6 hours of direct sun” rule was meant to be broken. If you get direct sun for the middle 4 hours of the day (say 11 am to 3 pm, that will be as much real light (lumens?) as 6 hours 7 am to 1 pm. So for fruits and roots, definitely give them the most direct sunlight you can, but if there’s competition for the very few  square feet of the only really sunny spot you’ve got, try out less sunny spots for some of them and odds are you will still get some harvest. Potatoes for example are meant to like full sun, but I’ve recently read they’ll tolerate less than the best and still give you potatoes. Tomatoes on the other hand I wouldn’t mess with. They have a hard enough time ripening in our climate as it is without challenging them even further.

Don’t rule out your front yard for growing edibles. Many are really attractive at their best–like rhubarb, blueberries, many cabbages, swiss chard.

4. Access–to water and to the kitchen. I hate going out to pick kale leaves in the pouring rain, but if at least I don’t have to tramp through a lot of wet grass to get there, I’m more likely to actually do it. So anything that I expect to be harvesting during bad weather will be located closer to the back door. Or front door. You’ll also want to make sure water is close at hand (will Boot Camp be discussing drip irrigation I wonder?).

Stay tuned for Day 4…

This Year’s Veggie Garden Day 2

Continuing with Garden Tribe’s 21 day  mini course on vegetable gardening, day 2 is all about climate and micro-climate. My editorial comments:

You of course know about climate. In coastal BC it’s usually rain for 10 months (this year being the exception) and sun for 2 months. Not much snow, not much frost, but also not much heat. In fact we don’t have warm nights until well into June. Which is why I’ve only just started my tomatoes–it’s said they shouldn’t be planted out until the nights are consistently over 10° C.

A few notes about Hardiness Zones: Canada and America have slightly different Hardiness Zones, so be sure to check your own country’s map. This map of last frost dates goes into great detail so you can look up your own town and see when it’s (supposedly) safe to plant out tender plants. But last frost dates are an inexact and limited means of knowing when it’s good to plant or sow. They can tell you if you can grow lemons in Bella Bella (not) but they don’t, for example, tell you if you have enough hot days to ripen melons. For information like that, you can go to your local seed companies. Here in BC, West Coast Seeds (located in sunny Ladner) gives regional planting/sowing lists.

Micro-climates is where things get much more interesting and precise. A micro-climate is any area where it’s hotter or colder, wetter or drier or windier than the surrounding areas. In my garden I have a hot, dry micro-climate against the back wall of the house. It faces south, so gets the most sun, there’s little to shade it in the depths of summer, and  for two feet it’s under the overhang of the eaves. So that’s where I grow my hot-, dry-loving grapes.

I think this may be Coronation grape.

I think this may be Coronation grape.

Coronation Grape

Coronation Grapes

But step back just a bit, and I’m now in a patch that receives full rain and full sun.

At the back of my south facing yard, the back-most 2-3′ get no direct sun ever. The 6′ fence shades it all afternoon, the Douglas-fir to the east shades it all morning, and the house to the west shades it all evening. So even on the longest day of the year I can be sure that shade loving perennials, and shade-tolerant vegetables will be fine there (only the most shade-tolerant veggies, like most leafy greens).

The great thing about micro-climates is that you can modify them more easily than you can change the climate. Thinning out the branches of the Douglas-fir allowed a little more rain below, and a little more sun. Planting a tree or even just a shrub can shelter a windy spot. Building raised beds can give you warmer soil earlier. Identify what you want, and then see if there’s some modifications you can make to achieve it.

It’s usually my practice to advise people to not make any big design decisions for their gardens until they’ve experienced one year of weather/climate/micro-climate. But for vegetable gardens I’d say–Just go ahead. Make a semi-educated guess about exposure in various areas, and if you get it wrong, little harm done. It’s all learning experience. I’m still trying to learn how to grow carrots and beets!

Littles beets ever.

Littlest beets ever. But tasty greens!

Stay tuned for installment 3.